Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

This Grad Life: Learning Experiences as a Graduate Student

Education has its milestones in a person’s life; their first day at school, high school graduation, acceptance into college, college graduation, etc. We put a major emphasis on what we learn and what we do with the knowledge we gain. I thought for many years that just doing well in school would have guaranteed a future career, but I was wrong. There’s far more to school that obtaining high marks and getting listed on the Honor Roll. I should have known then, but I understand now that making a push towards what I want in my career stems from the drive to make your mark.

Attending graduate school and earning my MA in History was one of the best life decisions I made. Following my graduation from the University of Arkansas, there were absolutely zero job prospects in the history field. No state or National parks were hiring and neither any museums within a hundred mile radius of home. After securing a job with an auto parts company, I began working in their shipping and receiving bay where I put together orders and conducted inventories. After about two weeks there while standing in front of the derelict counter and computer with a malfunctioning monitor, I said out loud, “This sucks. I’m going back to school and do something to get a history job because I’m going to go insane here.” For a year I put up with overbearing managers who wanted to fire me because they wanted to feel superior over someone who had a college degree (I wager that only a handful of those there actually completed high school). There was no A/C, heating, or any functioning ventilation of any kind, so it was brutal in the summer and winter. The job did mandate that I become forklift certified so that was one upside I guess. All the while, I’m squirreling money away to go back to school. I spent weeks researching different schools and their graduate programs until I landed upon Emporia State University, located in Emporia, Kansas. I was amazed to find out that not only did they accept my application, but offered me a job as a Graduate Teaching Assistant! I would have been thrilled to just study, but to have gainful employment at the university was a significant bounty. After submitting my two weeks notice, I began packing my bags and I moved to Kansas.

Returning to  the academic environment was a smooth transition for me. I found that I can achieve peak productivity in an academic environment as a student because of all the learning possibilities. Armed with a graduate assistant position and after meeting my faculty counterpart, I was ready to return to the history world. For two years, the time I spent working alongside the faculty and students was incredibly rewarding. Graduate student colleagues were some of my best confidants out there in school and the times we spent rambling and ranting about our research filled long hours at Mulready’s Pub. There were six of us in a small, shared office with graduate students from the English Department and we all got along swimmingly. There were times the stress was visible; fast-approaching deadlines, trouble verifying sources, dealing with the politics of academia, working late hours grading papers and tests. You could always count on having to do some amount of work. Anyone in that office who said they had nothing to do was outright lying.

One piece of advice that I’d share with other graduate teaching assistants is that when you’re selected to lead a lecture or session, always find something to engage the students and have them participate collectively. Right off the bat in my first day of class, students in back rows were asleep, sneakily checking their phones, or finding some way to appear busy to cover their lack of discipline. That perspective from the front of the classroom was not new to me (having delivered presentations before) but in the role of educator, you find ways to uplift the students and encourage them to study what they might slough off as just a mandatory course box on their degree plan. You may find that an interactive quiz, interactive primary sources, using historical artifacts, or something similar can bring students to both a better understanding of the material and greater respect for the subject. Not every student reacts the same way and not everyone can garner the same level of interest. I struggled with that because I wanted everyone to emulate the passion that I had, but I accepted later on that not everyone would and it allowed me to refocus my teaching energy.

Before the first semester began, I vowed to steer clear of the cliche office politics that came with the territory of academia. Instead, I found myself right at the center. Full disclosure, I was not privy to many discussions taking place in the Social Sciences Department itself, but I was there to receive their decisions, many of which I disagreed. I hit upon the idea early in my studies to pursue a public history path. Public history centers on researching and portraying historical subjects in a manner easy to public education and bring widespread notice to the general public. This is ideal for those wanting to work in a museum, library, archives, or a historical park. I knew that was what I wanted to do career wise and I soon hit upon my thesis idea. In 2010, I spent time studying overseas at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and became obsessed with my Scottish heritage. I quickly connected with some local Scottish groups back home in Missouri and took that passion with me to Kansas. The idea of interviewing Scottish-Americans, recording their experiences, and seeing how people learn about historical topics through their heritage practices sounded golden. At least it was to me, but to the faculty, it took some convincing. Ultimately my advisor supported me wholeheartedly, one committee member remained a mix of cautiously optimistic and skeptical, and the third endorsed it because of the oral history approach I used for interviewing candidates. I had my share of obstacles, especially with the faculty and administration, but I endured it and finally walked across the stage with my new MA History degree.

My advice for graduate students: never let any office politics get in the way of your degree. Your research, the sole purpose of you being there, should not be held hostage by the actions of some squabbling professors who don’t like each other. You aren’t accepted into the program to be a pawn, you’re there to pursue a passion that shapes your future career path. I remember telling my colleagues in numerous ‘Mulready meetings’ that our research shouldn’t be held hostage to advance one professor’s agenda over another.

Another great demand that graduate school makes is one that lies with yourself. Work-life balance isn’t just for your full-time job, but with school also. Achieving that balance was difficult for me because I was went full-bore into my schoolwork, all the time. There was some venting with exercise and swimming at the school gym, but looking back I think I could have done better.

When you look back on an experience, you want to ask yourself; was it worth it? In my case, yes. I got my degree, secured a job with the National Archives, and now I’m finally applying my history knowledge to my job, which is something I’m immensely proud.

Nothing Like Homemade: Making Beer, Wine, and Spirits during Prohibition

People surprise you when it comes to finding innovative ways overcoming an obstacle. Ask any contractor, tailor, chef, or any profession really and they’ll tell you about an intriguing problem and the equally intriguing approach they took to solve it. Now whether that’s done legally or not, that’s a different question altogether. During Prohibition, the public still wanted their alcohol and if they couldn’t afford prices set by bootleggers (or risk being caught by authorities), they made their own. What’s striking is that even though the drys pushed for national prohibition, neither the 18th Amendment or the Volstead Act banned the consumption of alcohol itself. Therefore it was still legal to drink alcohol, but illegal to produce, distribute, or sell alcohol.

The first draft of the Volstead Act stipulated that anything with more than one-half of one percent alcohol content was illegal. The problem with that was it would have outlawed industrial alcohol needed to make products such as embalming fluid, rubbing alcohol, varnish, aftershave, and various cleaning chemicals. Revisions lifted such restrictions, on the condition that manufacturers obtain permits for industrial alcohol production. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for draconian enforcement measures, but to pass the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act, he was forced to compromise and remove certain clauses. Drinking alcohol was still legal under the act, opening a considerable legal loophole for the public and bootleggers.

Drug stores and pharmacies were allowed under the Volstead Act to sell alcohol for medical use and consumption, if they received proper permits. Those who didn’t (or were caught selling unauthorized prescriptions) the Prohibition Bureau shut them down

Two major exemptions that are commonly associated with the Volstead Act were the use of alcohol for religious and medicinal purposes. Parishes and synagogues received an allotment of sacramental wine every month. Priests and rabbis would only order a size comparable to their congregation. However, there was lax enforcement on verifying the number of priests and rabbis who applied for sacramental wine permits and purchasing them. Along the Eastern Seaboard, there was an explosion of applications from false clergy trying to obtain sacramental wine. Alcohol for medical use was allowed as well. Doctors were allowed to write a limited number of prescriptions per month and no more. However, it was really up to the doctor’s discretion on whether or not a particular ailment required prescribing alcohol. It also wasn’t uncommon for an ‘epidemic’ to break out in a neighborhood and whole families would come in seeking ‘treatment’.  Despite the Prohibition Bureau’s efforts to curb these law-dodging practices, they remained impotent to arrest these scofflaws.

The brewing industry changed their business practices, marketing, and manufacturing overnight to stay open during Prohibition. Brewers utilized the lead time from passing to ratification of the 18th Amendment to adjust their production lines. Their infrastructure allowed for an easy transition into other grocery products, such as ice cream, yeast, bread dough, and non-alcoholic near beer, which had the same taste as beer, but without the alcoholic content. Despite being banned from selling beer, the Volstead Act did not outlaw selling the ingredients to make beer. This allowed large brewing companies like Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch to sell products like malt extract and syrup. Although marketed primarily for bakers and for selling bread, inventive minds quickly learned how to make homemade beer from malt extract, yeast, and other ingredients. Near-beer products like Pivo and Bevo never really caught on, but these could have their alcohol content modified once purchased. At the moment of purchase, whatever people did with the brewing ingredients was at their discretion. It can be argued without a doubt that big brewers ignited the 1920s home-brewing craze and resonating to the present day with home-brewers trying new recipes all the time.

Malt syrup and extract products could be used to make beer at home. Although beer was outlawed, the ingredients used to make it were still available, leading to a rise of home-brewing and kept breweries in business

Hard liquor and spirits were harshly condemned by dry politicians and the Anti-Saloon League, citing them as the main evils and purpose of the 18th Amendment. Big distilleries such as Jack Daniels, Squibb, and Jim Beam were targeted by anti-alcohol forces and at the start of prohibition, their distilleries and warehouses were padlocked and placed under government bond. This meant that only those with proper government permits and credentials for using medicinal alcohol were allowed to withdraw said alcohol. Infamous bootlegger George Remus exploited this loophole by creating his own trucking and pharmaceutical company to withdraw bonded alcohol and sell to drug companies, at enormous profit. Hard liquor could be obtained by other ways through bootleggers bringing product down from Canada which was another profitable venture. Roy Olmstead brought down thousands of crates of whiskey, rum, gin, and champagne down from Canada and distributed across the Pacific Northwest, earning him the nickname ‘King of Puget Sound.’ Additionally, those who had the tools and resources to make their own spirits did so with gusto. Distilling moonshine in the Appalachian region stretched back to the days of the American Revolution and was a way of life to many families. Prohibition agents struggled to find and dismantle these clandestine stills hiding in the mountains and forests. Despite their efforts, moonshine and other whiskies kept producing and eluding federal agents.

Prohibition agents locate an illegal still in an underground bunker. Stills were hidden in almost any place that could be easily concealed. Common hiding places include bunkers, barns, caves, abandoned factories, and boats

The only proviso under the Volstead Act that allowed for the production of alcohol at home was wine. Individual households were allowed to preserve fruits for juice and ‘other purposes’ which was interpreted as wine could be made at home. As previously mentioned with beer, the alcohol itself was illegal to sell, but the individual ingredients could still be purchased. The wine industry made adjustments during Prohibition to accommodate the growing demand for fruit juices, but also the sacramental wine market. Fruit growers in California specifically adapted their crops to the new market by growing apricots, peaches, cherries, and other popular fruits. These same companies also found a unique way around the Volstead Act by indirectly selling the wine to consumers. Companies like Vine-Glo sold grape juice concentrate which consisted of a block dehydrated grapes. Conveniently, these blocks came with warning labels consisting of language such as ‘do not mix with sugar and leave in dark place’ or ‘do not allow fermentation by adding sugar’. Subtle hints like this were signs to customers that they could make wine in their homes. Wine companies and fruit growers utilized their home wine making exception by selling ready-to-make wine; just add water, sugar, and let ferment.

Grape brick sold by Vine-Glo. On the surface, it’s a block of dehydrated grapes that can be used to make grape juice; or for the more enterprising mind, wine

The major question that arose for many legislators, lawyers, and dry advocates who wanted the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment upheld, what prevented law enforcement from stopping these work-arounds? Unfortunately based on the wording and descriptions within the Volstead Act, the raw ingredients used to make alcoholic beverages were not illegal and if in fact they were outlawed, they would have ended up banning fruits, wheat, barley, and other staples needed to produce basic foodstuffs. Temperance advocates and dry politicians banked on the assumption that people would respect the new law because of its enshrinement in the Constitution. The idea of breaking not only a law, but a constitutional amendment would deter people from drinking. However, the alcohol industry readily adapted to provide what wasn’t excluded and left it to the people to interpret what they will. Prohibition agents routinely searched for illegal stills and contraband, but were prevented from raiding grocery or drug stores in order to stop selling malt extract. There were an incalculable number of ways to procure alcohol during the 1920s and it perplexed the drys that a country that put a nation-wide ban on alcohol was also the world’s greatest importer of cocktail shakers.

People find unique ways to solve a problem. Not allowed to purchase wine? Well, you should know that it’s not a good idea to mix sugar, water, and dehydrated grapes, then leave the mixture in a cool, dark place. It’ll cause fermentation and you’ll get some strange smelling grape juice that only adults can drink. Just something I heard.

Moonshine still recently confiscated by the Internal Revenue Bureau photographed at the Treasury Department. Man standing next to still looking at contents of glass (photo courtesy of National Archives)


The Dry Crusader: Wayne Wheeler’s Quest for Prohibition

‘My childhood was an idyllic time in the most beautiful country. The sun shone brightly every spring and summer, making the great fields of wheat and corn glow brightly as they sway in the gentle breeze. I was so fond of working in those fields and doing such valuable work in God’s land. That is, until one day, a vagabond who worked on our farm was so besotted, he carelessly thrashed about his scythe and injured me greatly. His drunken misconduct taught me a valuable lesson: alcohol is the root of dangerous acts. Had he not been drunk, my idyllic childhood would not be tarnished with such a sorrowful stain.’

Sounds quite traumatizing does it not? Would hearing this story convince you to throw out all the alcohol in your house and campaign on this single issue until alcohol was totally banned? Well, the above story is only a fictionalized version, but a similar anecdote was shared by the leader of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the early 20th century. He worked tirelessly to advocate a single issue policy: the prohibition of alcohol. The efforts of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. They did so with such ravenous lobbying that many U.S. Representatives and Senators caved to their pressure for fear of losing their seat in the next election cycle. The man who oversaw all these political operations was Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. 

Wayne B. Wheeler, executive director of the Anti-Saloon League (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Before delving into Wayne Wheeler himself, it’s vital to understand the history and mission of the Anti-Saloon League within the larger story of Prohibition. Since the early 1800s, various temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated for the reduction and strict limitations of alcohol production and consumption. These early groups included alcohol temperance as part of their many causes to improve society, such as changing child labor laws, public sanitation, women’s suffrage, and urban housing. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin, Ohio and they adopted a different approach from preceding groups. The ASL advocated for a total ban on the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol and pursued it as a single issue platform. The total ban of alcohol was the organization’s only mission. The group exploded in membership and in a couple of years, they became a powerful national lobbying group whose influence stretched from local city government to the U.S. Congress. The league published thousands of pamphlets, leaflets, news articles, and gained a massive following with local churches so Wheeler utilized those connections to great advantage. The ASL was different from previous popular movements due to their bureaucratic, corporate structure and building departments dedicated to a certain aim of the organization. The publishing department wrote to thousands of newspapers and at one point, the ASL had whole page stories and columns in nearly every major newspaper in the United States. Enter Wayne Wheeler and his crusader zeal. 

Wheeler began his work with the ASL campaigning from door-to-door and sharing the anti-alcohol message. Wheeler joined the ASL shortly after their founding and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the executive director in 1904. Wheeler earned his law degree from Western Reserve University while working for the ASL and along with his teacher background, he was the organization’s most effective organizer and lobbyist. He embarked on a special brand of political lobbying (selfishly labeled Wheelerism) that became his trademark. he heavily pressed on the issue of prohibition and did so through any means to get a vote from elected officials. If they did not support prohibition legislation, Wheeler mobilized ASL followers to vote against them. The best case example was with Myron T. Herrick in his re-election for Governor of Ohio. Herrick supported local option laws that were backed by the ASL, but when he tried to modify them slightly, Wheeler used the publishing arm of the ASL to denounce him, and it worked. Herrick’s defeated was a monumental victory for the ASL which now demonstrated their political power. 

Political cartoons were effective in drawing attention to the issue of alcohol and the evils of the saloons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wheeler’s leadership model focused on achieving national prohibition by any means necessary. He was known on occasion to work with wet (pro-alcohol) politicians who were willing to vote on dry (anti-alcohol) legislation. This horrified some within the ASL, but Wheeler’s die-hard lobbying and cult-like followers were able to get results in every local and state election in passing dry laws. As more dry politicians were elected to office, the prospect of enacting a constitutional amendment banning alcohol became more of a reality. Single issue lobbying was forcing many legislators to choose a side as prohibition became a wedge issue. Wheeler also took the approach of focusing on the margin electorates. This meant that he needed to convince the small number of undecided voters to push them into choosing a side. This was accomplished by constantly pushing for change until they were worn down. 

Anti-Saloon League supporters turned up in large numbers at every election and by 1910, their political influence was unparalleled in Washington D.C. Despite this, they were still unable to garner enough votes to pass national prohibition or even a constitutional amendment on alcohol. The federal government relied heavily on alcohol tax revenue, but that changed in 1913 when Congress established an income tax with the 16th Amendment. Now with the government’s primary source of revenue coming from the general population instead of one industry, the economic argument for keeping alcohol collapsed. Wheeler quickly advanced upon dry legislators to pass the 18th Amendment and he himself was involved in drafting the Volstead Act, setting the draconian rules for alcohol’s usage. After years of political pressure and advocating, Wheeler and the ASL finally achieved their goal of national prohibition. 

The story of Wayne Wheeler doesn’t end with the passage of the 18th Amendment. The height of the league’s power in the 1920s now required them to constantly press home the need to prohibit alcohol, but the lobbying strength needed to do so was beginning to fade. Intent on keeping the issue of alcohol in the national spotlight, Wheeler sought to influence the Bureau of Prohibition and monitor the selection of agents to enforce the Volstead Act. Throughout his tenure with the Bureau, he entered a dark phase of condemning those who consumed tainted alcohol. Wheeler didn’t feel sympathy for those who died from tainted alcohol (tainted sometimes by the government’s orders). This callous, cold attitude turned off many political supporters from Wheeler who started to change their dry positions. Wheeler was also an uncompromising individual who refused to change his stance on prohibition, which ended any prospect of adjusting the Volstead Act in order to reduce the number of violations. The public outcry surrounding his comments on the victims of tainted alcohol forced him into an early retirement from the ASL, but he never ceased his prohibition lobbying. Wheeler suffered a series of personal tragedies; his wife and father-in-law died from a house fire and heart attack respectively within hours of each other and on September 5, 1927, Wayne died from a chronic kidney disease. 

Wayne’s legacy doesn’t only encompass Prohibition, but also the effectiveness of pressure politics that force people to choose sides on a wedge issue. We can see it today in a variety of political arguments surrounding immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, drugs, and more where groups tirelessly campaign for a single issue. We can learn from these lobbying tactics and see how they impact our government today. There is so much we can learn from the history of Prohibition; it’s not all speakeasies and gangsters, but a moral quest that battled for America’s soul. 

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration)



The Unadulterated McCoy: Rum-Running on the Eastern Seaboard

Bootlegging stories from Prohibition tell of some pretty elaborate and colorful schemes by criminals. Smuggling alcohol through customs, making bathtub gin, adopting religious pseudonyms for sacramental wine, and sailing out to Rum Row are just some of the stories that have become Americana. They were breaking what many interpreted as an unjust law. How un-American was it to ban alcohol? How dare some politicians close down the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam distilleries? Or iconic brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, and Pabst? The scofflaws who flouted the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act believed they were battling against tyranny by drinking and bringing alcohol to their customers.

Bootlegging operations ran all over the Western Hemisphere; from Canada all the way down to Central and South America. Gangsters from infamous crime families to families making home-brewed beer subverted Prohibition for different reasons and contemporary historians investigate the morality involved in all types of bootleggers. Many of them cut corners by thinning alcohol with industrial chemicals or herbal concoctions that could make them downright deadly. When a person bought beer or distilled spirits from a bootlegger, they were potentially risking their lives.

William S. McCoy, captain of the schooners Tomoka and Henry L. Marshall. William and Benjamin (not pictured) ran rum-running operations along the Eastern Seaboard for about four years until they were finally apprehended by the U.S Coast Guard (photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

A sea captain with a heroic, folklore reputation rose above the blanket categorization of bootlegger. He prided himself on never having worked with organized crime or watering down and polluting his alcohol with adulterants. William McCoy, and his brother Benjamin, were partners in a smuggling operation that ran from the Caribbean all the way up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Bootlegging to William McCoy was his way of being an ‘honest lawbreaker’. He found inspiration with John Hancock, the Founding Father whose shipping business was at the center of questioning unfair British taxes and smuggling in the American colonies. William and Benjamin gained a reputation in the early 1910s as skilled craftsmen and boat builders in Florida. They ran a small motor boat service and shipyard, but at the start of Prohibition in 1920, the McCoy family fell on hard times. Boat freights were slowly replaced with the growing trucking industry and the brothers stood at a crossroads. What could they do to earn a living? How could they use their skills to earn money in this new environment? The answer came easily: rum-running.

Drawing on his maritime knowledge and experience as a sea captain, McCoy shipped vast quantities of alcohol from Caribbean islands (the Bahamas and Bimini primarily) up through shipping lanes to Florida. Buyers flooded McCoy with purchase orders to fill demands in the southern United States. In just one trip, McCoy generated enough profit to pay off the main business expense, his schooner the Henry L. Marshall. McCoy expanded the rum-running venture to purchase six more vessels, including the Tomoka which he registered under British customs to divert suspicion from the U.S. Coast Guard. McCoy further avoided capture from authorities by pioneering an idea of having barges and freighters filled with product anchored at least three miles offshore in international waters. The floating alcohol wholesalers became known colloquially as ‘Rum Row’. Credit for this idea has historically gone to McCoy, according to both family records and the U.S. authorities. By completing business deals at sea, customers could purchase orders and when ready for pickup, they were outside U.S. jurisdiction. For three years, from 1920 to 1923, McCoy routinely pocketed anywhere from $50,000 to $100,00 per delivery (approx. $600,000 to $1,000,000 dollars today). The brothers’ run came to end on November 23, 1923 when the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Seneca tracked the Tomoka into international waters and apprehended the brothers. William McCoy was charged with multiple violations of the Volstead Act and rather than taking his case to trial, McCoy plead guilty to the charges and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail and paid a large fine. Despite having lost the profitable rum-running venture and his ships confiscated by the Coast Guard, the McCoys amassed a considerable fortune that they later put back into their boat building business and into the booming Florida real estate market.

Rum Row brought alcohol straight from the international market. Buyers could purchase anything from blended whisky and rum to the finest wines and champagnes (photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

Unlike other bootleggers and rum-runners, the McCoy brothers took measures to deliver the best product to their clients. They never engaged in diluting their alcohol or cutting it with dangerous substances. Business with organized crime figures was never conducted and they even paid their crews more than other rum running outfits to keep them from stealing product. The rum running business was a game-changer for the Bahamian economy. Exploding alcohol sales and increase in alcohol tourism at the time made the Bahamas a vacation hot spot. This was due large in part to Prohibition and the scores of rum runners who bought their product overseas and sold it in international waters. Despite numerous complaints by the U.S. government, the British Foreign Office never intervened in the rum running operations. But Prohibition is not without its darker narratives as is the case with all history.  Alcohol statistics during the Prohibition are, in the best definition, paradoxical. Production, sale, distribution, and consumption of alcohol was down and alcohol related crimes such as driving under the influence and public intoxication was down in some regions. On the contrary, that same data showed an exponential increase in other regions; so much that even stricter legislation was passed to crack down on abusers (e.g. New York’s Mullan-Gage Law). Prohibition crafted the national crime syndicates between crime families and in the law’s attempt to ban alcohol, the number of alcohol related fatalities exploded overnight. These were times where people really went off the deep end.

Researching the history of Prohibition without incorporating William McCoy is akin to discussing the Constitutional Convention and not mentioning Alexander Hamilton or James Madison. McCoy’s rum running career gained a folklore status in the U.S. and his story stands out among bootleggers for his aversion to violence and retiring early to capitalize on his adventurous gains.

Teaching History During These COVID-19 Times

The title of this article should go without saying that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered human interaction. Social distancing, face masks, temperature checks, travel bans, and stay-at-home orders have filled the nightly news, airwaves, and social media feeds for months. Working remotely has become the standard for those who can perform their jobs from home (present company included). For those who are suffering a more stressful situation, they’re filing for unemployment or cutting costs to fit a budget that barely supports them. But this pandemic goes beyond economic loss: family members, friends, and loved ones that have succumbed to this disease are traumatized forever. It’s no doubt that 2020 will be left forever with the pandemic’s mark.

All levels of society made adjustments to their normal operations. They changed their hours, points of contact, limited capacity, strict physical distancing; anything to significantly reduce human contact. One sector that was stopped dead in its tracks was education. Schools at all levels gradually closed throughout the winter and by early spring, public schools and universities shut their doors. In the United States local options still kept some institutions open, but the majority of schools closed to keep the transmission of COVID-19 down in the student population. Other countries in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia implemented country wide closures until further notice. Only the government would grant approval for re-openings and only then under strict guidelines.

Cue the explosive rise of distance learning and Zoom classrooms! To be honest, I never even heard of Zoom prior to the pandemic. Distance learning isn’t exactly a novel concept though. People were taking correspondence courses since the mid-20th century and educational software has made it possible to obtain college degrees from schools hundreds of miles away. What’s different in 2020 though is that online classes in real-time are replicating the traditional classroom experience in an interactive, digital format. Simultaneously, learning institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Park Service (NPS), the Smithsonian, and hundreds of others have taken to social media, webinars, and virtual tours to promote their holdings and conduct classroom work. This provides a unique way to teach history to the general public. They bring the content to you via computer.

From a research and teaching perspective, history has always required primary documents to preserve the historical record for educational use. Traditionally, people needed to search extensive holdings online and then (if they weren’t digitized) they had to make arrangements to view the records in person at the holding location. Certain holdings weren’t available online at all so in-person research was the only option. Since the pandemic closed many of these institutions or limited them to completing emergency work (needing pertinent medical information as an example), they had to make access possible through the internet at an exponential rate. Educator resources also needed to be made available online and for history teachers, projects such as DocsTeach, History Hub, and a host of research websites have provided great historical content to engage students virtually. Distance learning is not without its flaws though. Internet accessibility and the required tools are not equal by any means. Without trying to explain the dense jungle of copyright infringement and exceptions, educators have worked tirelessly to bring as much content as possible to their lessons that do not break any copyright laws. Equal access to learning tools is another issue. Not every school can afford to purchase tablets for their students and not every home has internet access which makes distance learning challenging. These obstacles need to be worked out on the community and policy level to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to learn from the same resources.

Improvisation is the theme of COVID-19 pandemic. Surely you’ve seen the social media videos of people building impromptu roller coasters, beaches, snowy mountain slopes, and water parks in their backyard. People have come up with some ingenious ideas to replicate what COVID-19 has cancelled. There are plenty of ways to supplement learning too! You can share books with neighbors, take a virtual tour of a museum or park, make some historical arts and crafts, or perform a historical re-enactment! In grade school, we learned about the Lewis and Clark expedition through crafting and my teacher explained how they were used. This was a fantastic way to expand upon the history rather than only reading it in a textbook. I made a rabbit fur lined leather journal and wrote in some entries about the expedition, complete with sketches of animals Lewis and Clark saw on their journey (pronghorns, bison, elk, etc.) My teacher was so impressed that she put my journal on display in the school library (it fed my 12-year old ego so much it was almost dangerous). Immersive activities like these put the lesson in a new dynamic, making you think about the history in a novel way. Sometimes a tactile approach like this can be good depending on how you learn best.

Throughout it all, we shouldn’t forget about the socio-economic issues being highlighted throughout this pandemic. Communities see the reliance that families have on their school system when schools are replaced with distance learning. Students of families living at or below the poverty line aren’t receiving school meals or receiving special educational training to assist with learning disabilities. Additionally, working parents needed to make adjustments with their work schedules to accommodate their children at home if they can. While some families can have that option of homeschooling children and helping with distance learning, a large section of the population has struggled to keep both food on the table and children educated with the resources at hand. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic indeed stretches far beyond the medical data and the loss of life. It has lifted a window shade on what our society is like and what we can do to improve it for everyone.

Semper Paratus: Requesting U.S. Coast Guard Medals (Special Edition)

When you ask someone ‘what branches make up the U.S. Armed Forces?’ they’ll typically answer ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines’ but one that they’ll routinely forget is the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed the Coast Guard is a service branch of the Armed Forces, but it can be overlooked occasionally. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in existence since the country’s founding and was championed by a notable Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton. A coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch was personal for Hamilton, stretching back to his early days in the Caribbean when he worked for a shipping firm. Pirate raids and privateers were a constant nuisance for merchant vessels so creating a service designed specifically for coastal defense and law enforcement at sea was critical. Originally, named the Revenue-Marine, it became the Revenue Cutter Service, and following a merger with the U.S. Life Saving Service under the 1915 Coast Guard Act, the modern U.S. Coast Guard was born.

Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

If you’ve read the preceding articles about awards and decorations for the Armed Forces, it was numbered to focus on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So why is this post about the Coast Guard labeled ‘special edition’? Concerning awards and medals, the Coast Guard has a special distinction that none of the other service branches can claim: only one Coast Guard service member was awarded the Medal of Honor and no member has received the second-highest medal, the Coast Guard Cross. We’ll go over those in a bit!

Requesting Coast Guard awards and decorations works similarly to the Navy and Marine Corps process outlined in the previous post (Meritorious Service).  The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder is reviewed by a technician at the National Personnel Records Center and then forwarded to the service branch personnel center. For the Coast Guard, this would be the Commander, Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. There is however one important caveat to note with the Coast Guard: records are not cross-checked with lists of ship unit awards or combat actions. The technician only completes a medals request with those awards expressly noted in the service record. If a veteran believes they are entitled to an award that is not listed in their record, that request is forwarded to the service branch for verification.

Now onto the two great distinctions for the Coast Guard! During wartime, the Coast Guard transfers personnel and operations to the Department of the Navy. This has only been performed twice, during World War I and World War II by presidential order. During peacetime, the Coast Guard is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (before that it was the Department of Transportation, and prior to that it was the Department of the Treasury). Coast Guard members are eligible to receive Navy medals, but beginning in the late 1940s, Congress established Coast Guard versions of Navy medals to make them eligible for those service members:

  1. The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
  2. Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
  4. The Lifesaving Medal is the oldest award within the Coast Guard that is still active. The medal (divided into two awards, the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medal) is given to those rescuing people from dangerous waters. The medal was created in 1874 and the higher of the two, the Gold Medal, has only been awarded about 600 times. Technically it is not considered a military decoration and can be awarded to the public also.

On October 15 2010, Congress passed Public Law 111-281 establishing the Coast Guard Cross. The newest award was created equivalent to the Navy Cross and is given to service members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism that do not merit the Medal of Honor. The award is meant to acknowledge those distinguishing acts while serving in only a Coast Guard capacity. Despite the award being nearly 10 years old, the Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded. Not even once.

The Coast Guard Cross. The reverse side of the medal reads ‘For Valor’  (image courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)

Onto the second distinction! During the Second Battle of Matanikau in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro used his Higgins landing craft to shield Marines that were redeploying under heavy fire from the Japanese. Leading up to the battle, Munro and his shipmate Raymond Evans were stationed at Naval Operating Base Cactus conducting support operations for the Navy and Marine Corps. On September 27, 1942, the Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the Matanikau River and Munro was placed in charge of landing craft and Higgins boats sending Marines to their positions. While ferrying injured Marines back and forth, the Marines at Matanikau faced a counter-offensive and were in danger of being overrun. Munro quickly returned to the beach and laid suppressing fire on the enemy while Marines boarded the landing  craft and waited until all were secure. A couple of the landing crafts became stuck on sandbars near the beach and Munro directed other boats to move in and pick up any remaining Marines. It was at this moment that Munro was shot in the head. Evans held  Munro as he was dying and before he finally died, Munro asked if all the Marines made it out safely and smiled when Evans nodded yes.

News of Munro’s heroism reached back to the United States. Munro was immediately awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor presented to his family at the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. The citation reads:

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

-Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro

Munro’s name has been memorialized in Coast Guard vessels, facilities, monuments, VFW Posts, scholarships, and as of today is the only non-Marine to be listed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Wall of Heroes. Memorial observances are held at the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May annually with new recruits.

Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal, (1989) by Bernard D’Andrea

The U.S. Coast Guard has an incredible history and reading material about the early days of the Revenue-Marine, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life Saving Service is extensive. For more information about the Coast Guard and its award and decorations, visit the Coast Guard’s Personnel Services Division.

Meritorious Service: Requesting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medals (4 of 4)

The history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is incredibly dense and overflowing with heroic stories of men battling the elements, fighting enemies in exotic locales, and being ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Towering ships like the USS Constitution, USS Missouri, USS Arizona, and the USS Hornet were at the center of momentous historical events that defined generations and military tradition. An illustrious history can even be heard in the Marines’ Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine”

(The ‘Halls of Montezuma’ refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and the ‘shores of Tripoli’ refers to the Battle of Derne in the First Barbary War). The Continental Congress quickly established both the Navy and Marine Corps during  the American Revolution to counter the British Navy, which was the largest in the world during the 18th century. Since the early 1800s, the Navy and Marine Corps were engaged in conflicts throughout the world. Despite their operations during the War of 1812, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and many other global conflicts, Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations were established primarily after World War I and World War II.

The USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s victory earned it the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps share a special distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces and other uniformed services: their medals are shared and awarded to both members of each branch. What many people don’t realize is that the Marine Corps is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy (and the U.S. Navy is within the same department of course). On June 30, 1834, the Marines were combined with the Navy following an Act of Congress; ‘Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps‘:

“…That the said corps shall, at all times, be subject to, and under the laws and regulations which are, or may hereafter be, established for the better government of the Navy, except when detached for service with the Army, by order of the President of the United States.”

-An Act for the better organization of the Marine Corps, Statute I, Chapter CXXXII, Sec 2, Twenty-Third Congress, June 30, 1834

Although the Navy and Marine Corps share the same medals, a substantial amount of research is performed to verify awards and decorations requests. This is due to the fact that geographic assignments and time served on ships plays a significant part in determining awards. Naval ships earn what are called Battle Efficiency Awards that are given for best battle efficiency competition and overall readiness for naval operations. A common request that Navy veterans make are for ship awards they believe are eligible for; if they served on the ship when it received that award though. A number of retroactive awards, especially for WWII and Korea, are available too through recent general orders from the Department of the Navy.

Let’s look at some unique medals and awards issued by the Department of the Navy:

  1. Navy Cross: second highest award for valor in combat, equal to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Medal: awarded for non-combat heroism equal to the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal: awarded to active duty personnel who landed in foreign territory and engaged the enemy
  4. Combat Action Ribbon: awarded to sea service members who engaged in ground or surface combat against the enemy. *This is the most commonly requested award for both service branches*
  5. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon: awarded to those serving active duty onboard a vessel at sea. *Established in 1980, it is only retroactive to August 15, 1974 so any requests for the SSDR before that date are denied*
  6. Navy E Ribbon: awarded for battle efficiency competitions for readiness and overall preparedness for that vessel and crew

The Navy and Marine Corps also issue Achievement and Commendation awards as mentioned previously in the preceding articles. Appurtenances like service stars, oak leaves, and numerals are also used along with another one called the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia. This is issued to U.S. Navy sailors attached to Marine Corps units engaged in combat operations. Both branches also have a system of weapon marksmanship awards for different weapon types.

The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landing at Da Nang. They were the first US ground combat troops to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965 (photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

As any technician at the National Personnel Records Center will tell you, fulfilling requests for Navy and Marine Corps awards is a labor intensive process. This is because of the numerous resources that technicians use to cross-check where a service member was located, at what time, with what unit or vessel, and length of time overseas or deployed on a ship. Individual personnel records may not completely reflect the award history of a vessel so they are checked against a massive ledger of all ship and unit awards garnered by that vessel. For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans in particular, this is combined with their eligibility for foreign awards if (and this is a big IF) they were assigned to ships that were in the sovereign waters of a country where combat actions occurred. Ledgers for Presidential, Meritorious, and Navy Unit Commendations are extensive because they track every deployment and combat action of each vessel. The same goes for the Marine Corps; their deployments and attachments to specific units and ships are heavily reviewed to see whether or not they’re eligible for awards also. Additionally, combat air wings with the Navy and Marine Corps are also separated with their awards determination. A naval combat air wing can receive an award, but the aircraft carrier transporting them doesn’t necessarily receive the same. This unit stratification is important to remember when Navy and Marine Corps veterans request their medals. If you weren’t attached to a unit or ship that received an award for being in a specific time or place, then you wouldn’t be considered eligible.

Before delving into the finer details of the Navy and Marine Corps awards themselves, it’s imperative to look at the request process as well. Similar to the Army and Air Force, requests are made through the NPRC and information is verified through the personnel folder. The Navy and Marine Corps also use a form similar to the Air Force’s NA 13059 entitled a NAVPERS 1650/96 ‘Transmittal of and/or entitlement to Awards’. Replacements are also only issued once like the Air Force and so copies of this form are put in the record and then sent to the service branch office. The Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee is responsible for the verification and replacement of Navy and Marine Corps awards.

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on October 24, 1944 (Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

A large number of requests for Navy and Marine Corps medals comes from World War II veterans and their families. This time period requires a significant amount of research because ships, combat air wings, and Marine Corps units attached to naval units all have a multiple lists and information to verify. Veterans who served in the Pacific Theater are eligible for awards like the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbons, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the China Service Medal (given for service in waters near China between 2 September 1946 and 1 April 1957). Once a technician confirms the veteran’s on-board service, that is cross checked against that ship’s unit award history and if nothing is found, that request is complete! The same process is repeated for Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Marine Corps award requests are examined in nearly the same manner. A master list of every Marine Corps unit since the Korean War shows their unit awards, combat actions, and corresponding time frames to prove eligibility. When Marine Corps units are attached with other units that receive awards, the aforementioned Marine Corp unit receives the same unit award. Again, time and place makes a major difference in determining awards eligibility. One final, yet important disclaimer I should add here is that the NPRC only processes awards requests for veterans how have their records at the record center. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Navy and Marine Corps began digitizing and retaining their own service records.

Let’s look at an example! Assume that all the supporting documentation exists for the veteran’s request for all entitled medals and awards:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 5, 1943
  2. Served on the USS Denver from 1 October 1944 to 30 November 1945
  3. Stationed in Japan following surrender in September 1945

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat against the enemy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  2. Navy Unit Commendation: received for serving on board the USS Denver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  3. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze service star: service in the Pacific Theater
  4. World War II Victory Medal: active duty between 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946
  5. Navy Occupation Medal: stationed in occupied Axis country, Japan
  6. Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: meritorious service in the Pacific Theater and actions in the Philippines
  7. Philippine Liberation Medal: participated in the liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese forces

Now let’s look at a Marine Corps example. Again, assume that all the supporting documentation exists in the personnel folder:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 June 1964
  2. Served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from 30 August 1965 to 15 November 1966
  3. Participated in Operation Prairie and Deckhouse
  4. Wounded once in combat
  5. Received a commendation for heroic acts

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Purple Heart: sustaining wounds during combat
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation: for heroic acts performed during combat operations
  3. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat operations against the enemy
  4. National Defense Service Medal: for active duty service during a conflict
  5. Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star: received for serving in the Republic of Vietnam
  6. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation: received the foreign unit award for being attached to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines while serving in Vietnam
  7. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device: foreign award for serving in Vietnam

These examples are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are to give a general conception of what typical awards are eligible for Navy and Marine Corps veterans. For more information on Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations, you can visit the Navy Personnel Command website here: Navy Personnel Command.

I hope this article series on U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations has been informative and helpful! You can also visit the National Personnel Records Center website to begin the request process for medals (NPRC website). Happy researching!

For Heroic Acts: Requesting U.S. Air Force Medals (3 of 4)

The U.S. Air Force is the youngest service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (I know there’s the Space Force, but that’s a story for another day and as of right now, they’re just using the same medals as the Air Force). Prior to the Cold War, aerial warfare was part of the Army with the sub-branches of the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Force. The National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch and on September 18, 1947 the Air Force became independent and began its own operations and forming commands.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Gen. McPeak served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and oversaw Air Force operations during the Gulf War (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

During the Air Forces’ early years, they borrowed heavily from the Army’s list of awards and decorations. It wasn’t uncommon for a Air Force veteran that served during the Korean War to be awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force began drafting its own award system and designing the decorations. More awards were established during and after the Vietnam War and with the creation of the Space Force, proposals for new awards have been issued too. Ribbons and medals made especially for the Air Force include, but are not limited to the Air Force Cross, Airman’s Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon,  AF Training Ribbon, AF Special Duty Ribbon, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. While the Air Force does not issue extensive marksmanship badges as the Army does with all the different weapon bars, they do issue ribbons that indicate proficiency with small arms and receive appurtenances for multiple awards. The Air Force does issue a wide arrange of badges that cover everything from pilot wings, to flight surgeons, and to one of the most coveted, the astronaut badge.

Army and Air Force awards are varied in their qualifications and design, but it doesn’t end there. How Air Force medals requests are processed is different too. In the previous post on Army Medals (For Distinguishing Service), an Army veteran just needs to submit a request through the National Personnel Records Center, a technician submits the pertinent information to the Army TACOM, who re-issues the medals; a process that be done multiple times. The process for Air Force veterans is marginally different and here’s why:

  • The U.S. Air Force allows a one-time submission for the re-issuance of awards and decorations. When requested, this cannot be repeated by another party in the future

The F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter. The F-16 is famous for having multiple variants and was the primary USAF fighter jet used during the Gulf War and is still in operation today (Photo courtesy of the USAF)

NPRC technicians submit Army medals information directly to the Army via online through TACOM which generates an immediate request number for veterans to follow-up on later. For Air Force medals, technicians complete an NA Form 13059 ‘Transmittal of And/Or Entitlement to Awards‘. The form is a long list of every medal, ribbon, and decoration issued by the Air Force and a technicians checks off boxes corresponding to the veteran’s entitled award.  Unit awards are also included and technicians compare OMPFs to these lists, similar to the Army unit awards. The completed form is copied three times:

  1. First copy is placed inside the Official Military Personnel Folder to show that the awards have been issued previously
  2. Second copy is mailed to the requester
  3. Third copy is forwarded to the Air Force Personnel Center, located at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX

Awards and decorations come directly from the AFPC, not the NPRC. Once they have the NA Form 13059, it remains in their queue until completed. The Air Force keeps this document to ensure that the medals are only re-issued once. Depending on the nature of the request (wanting replacements, petitioning for a new medal, etc.) sometimes the process can take months or even years; it all depends on the AFPC’s priorities.

Award eligibility is slightly different between the Air Force and Army too. What are automatic awards for one branch are reciprocal for the other. A signature example is the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. This foreign award was retroactively awarded to all Army veterans, but not to the Air Force. Only those who were awarded the medal while serving in Vietnam can request it again. Air Force veterans that served in Vietnam do automatically receive the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device for service in country.

Let’s look at some examples of Air Force medals! Assume that for the following scenarios that the veteran has the supporting documentation in their record:

  1. Served in Vietnam from 2 April 1968 to 22 February 1969
  2. Qualified expert marksman for the M-16
  3. Enlisted on 30 March 1967 and discharged on 15 September 1971
  4. Served in the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing throughout Vietnam tour

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (AFOUA), National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award (AFLSA), Small Arm Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (SAEMR), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (for educational purposes only)

  • Veteran received the AFOUA because he served with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing which received the award while stationed in Vietnam
  • The VSM with three stars and the RVN Campaign w/1960 device because he served in Vietnam in that time frame
  • Veteran doesn’t receive the Cross of Gallantry because it’s not an automatic unit award and was not awarded to the 37th Tactical Wing
  • Received the AFLSA for at least 4 years of honorable service in the branch
  • Received the SAEMR for being qualified with the M-16

That was pretty easy! Now let’s do a more difficult one. Again, assume the veteran has all the supporting documentation:

  1. Served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Enduring Freedom
  2. Enlisted on 7 June 1989 and discharged on 6 June 2009
  3. Received all good conduct marks throughout service
  4. Qualified expert marksman with the M-16
  5. Completed 10 combat missions with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
  6. Cited for valor in combat against the enemy, worthy of the Air Force Cross

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Cross, AF Combat Action Medal, Meritorious Unit Award with bronze oak leaf cluster, AF Good Conduct Medal with silver and bronze oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, Southwest Asia Service Medal with bronze service star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (GWOTSM), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM), AF Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, AF Longevity Ribbon with oak leaf clusters, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon.

  • Received the Air Force Cross following in record citation
  • Participated in aerial combat after 2007 so eligible for the AF Combat Action Medal (retroactive to 11 September 2001)
  • Received the Meritorious Unit Award twice while serving with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group (awarded twice when stationed in Afghanistan)
  • Received appurtenances with the Good Conduct Medal for multiple years of good marks and performance
  • The National Defense Service Medal has a bronze service star because the veteran served in two conflicts (Gulf War, War on Terror)
  • Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign medal for participating in Desert Shield and Enduring Freedom
  • Received the GWOTSM and GWOTEM for service overseas during the Global War on Terror
  • Overseas Long Ribbon for completing more than two years overseas
  • Completed 20 years of service so veteran received AFLSA with oak leaves
  • AF Training Ribbon for completing basic military training

On top of all these awards, because there’s documentation that he’s a combat pilot, he gets a pilot’s badge above the ribbon rack:

USAF Pilot Badge

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about U.S. Air Force awards and decorations! For my next installment, I’ll have a combined U.S. Navy / Marine Corps article as they share nearly all of the same types of medals. Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have a huge array of retroactive award policies, specific rules on automatic and unit awards, and awards for naval ships and vessels too. Even though the share many of the same medals, there are a couple of tiny differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, but we’ll go through it all!

Going Through the Files: Researching Military Records

The federal government has an enormous repository of information (enormous may not be enough of an adjective). While the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) contains millions of cubic feet of records, billions of logical data points, and hundreds of thousands of artifacts in collections from Presidential libraries and preservation offices, one of the most requested items are military records. Everyone from veterans, to researchers, historians, mortgage companies, law enforcement, and others look at military records for a wide range of reasons. Military records themselves contain a wealth of information detailing nearly every facet of a person’s time in the service. From their enlistment contract to their final discharge from the reserves, military service records are a critical link in a chain of information kept by the National Archives.

These records are formally known as Official Military Personnel Folders (OMPF) and they are carried by a veteran throughout their service. Each contain different forms that cover the enlistment process, promotions, transfers, awards, educational courses, and disciplinary actions. If you’ve been in the military, you’ll recognize form names like DD-4 (Enlistment Contract), DD-214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty), DD-215 (Correction to DD Form 214), DA-5016 (Chronological Statement of Retirement Points), and DD Form 256 (Discharge Certificate). These are crucial documents that a veteran needs upon separation from active duty in order to apply for many financial and medical benefits from the Veterans Administration (VA). On top of essential documents like these, the OMPF also contains information on education, transfers, awards general orders, appointments, and TDYs (temporary duty). These flesh out the fine details of a service member’s career and complete the larger picture.

DD Form 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. This is arguably the most important document that a service member will receive upon completion of their service (image courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Because OMPFs can have a massive amount of information, examining the signature DD Form 214 will provide the best overview of what people look for when researching military records. This is the capstone military document for a veteran. First, the form contains the basic personally identifiable information (PII), such as name, date of birth, social security number, home address, rank, and branch of service. The DD Form 214 won’t list every command or duty assignment, but it will mention the last one prior to a discharge or release from active duty. A primary specialty is the service member’s job (also called their Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS). Depending on the service branch, every MOS you’ve ever been assigned will be listed in that box also. The Record of Service is also important as well since years of active  duty and foreign service has a direct effect on what kinds of benefits one can receive from the VA. For all those Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard veterans, Sea Service denotes the time deployed on a ship at sea.

Decorations and Awards is some of the most sought after information. It’s also the section that is subjected to more in-depth research in years following an individual’s discharge. This is due to the fact that the Department of Defense can issue orders or Congress can pass legislation retroactively authorizing the issuance of new or accompanying awards based on time, place, location, and purpose. For example, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam receives the Vietnam Service Medal, but they are additionally entitled to bronze service stars for time in campaigns, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal w/1960 device, and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. Those two are foreign awards and not issued by the Department of Defense, but they are entitled to wear them as a U.S. Army veteran who served at least 1 day of active duty in the Republic of Vietnam. Conversely, a U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force veteran doesn’t automatically receive those two awards, unless they were already issued at the time of service. Another example are World War II combat veterans. If a veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for ground combat action, they are automatically entitled to wear the Bronze Star Medal. Usually veterans request their awards for personal reasons, such as putting them on display or having them for a memorial service following their death.

Award ribbons of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam (top to bottom, left to right: Bronze Star Medal with ‘V’ device, Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with 1960 device *reproduced for informative purposes only*)

Service members, especially officers, attend specialty schools and take correspondence courses to augment not only their personal education, but some courses are prerequisites for a new MOS or promotion. If a person ever takes courses like that, the DD Form 214 records every class and school they successfully complete. The Remarks section is primarily used as extra space in case the information is incomplete in its original box. Here you might see the decorations and awards information carry over, or an updated address, or something else.

Eight copies of a DD Form 214 are made; two are given to the veteran and the remainder split between the VA, DOD, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the veteran’s home state. On four of these copies is another crucial piece of information; the character of service and type of discharge. These two boxes can have arguably the most significant impact on a veteran’s life after they’ve left the service. The character of service describes the nature of their time in the military; whether or not they’ve done their job satisfactorily, have not committed any crimes, and have successfully fulfilled the duties of their station. If so, they receive an ‘Honorable’ or ‘Under Honorable Conditions’ characterization. Below this category is the ‘Other than Honorable’, ‘Bad Conduct’, and ‘Dishonorable’ discharge. These occur normally as the result of punitive action or a court martial as a result of a criminal offense. A person may also receive an ‘Uncharacterized, Entry Level Separation’ which means that they didn’t complete more than 180 days of active duty before they left (normally they left during basic training or had an underlying medical condition). Additionally, when a service member separates, they are either discharged, meaning they have no further obligation to the military, or they are released from active duty, indicating a transfer to a reserve or National Guard unit to serve a period in the reserves. Once that period is complete, then they are fully discharged from the reserves and the service branch.

Military records are not only filled with administrative information, but incredibly rich historical information when well researched. A soldier’s story fills in the board narrative of our nation’s history abroad and what they went through overseas. Researching military records both keeps our history alive and garners a greater appreciation for those individuals who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to ensure our way of life and liberty in our nation.